The idea for a “national concert band” began in 1973 with discussions among retired and former members of the four major military service bands in the Washington, DC area. The organization’s two main purposes were to provide a way for area military musicians to continue to play after retirement, and to preserve the concert band tradition of music in the United States, so prominent in the first half of the twentieth century. As many former military band members as possible were located and approximately 35 came together in 1974 to form the National Concert Band of America. Articles of Organization were ratified on July 7, 1974 and Articles of Incorporation were processed on November 1, 1974 in Washington, DC.
The original membership did not constitute full concert band instrumentation, so additional area players were contacted to see if they would be interested in joining. Some of the members’ wives were also contacted as they were excellent players in their own right. They had been unable to audition for one of the military service bands due to the fact that, at the time, women were not accepted in the ranks. By 1974 this had changed but none of the women, now members of military bands, had reached retirement age.
The first conductor chosen was Edmund DeMattia, formerly principal oboist with the United States Navy Band. He was one of the founding members of the American Concert Band Association (ACB) and the National Concert Band became a member of this professional organization. The first band concerts began in 1974. The size of the band increased to 50 over the next several years. During this period the band made two appearances at the Canadian National Exposition and was a regular attraction around Independence Day at the historic Mount Washington Hotel in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire.
It was during conductor DeMattia’s tenure the Band participated in making the epic series of historic recordings of “The Heritage of the March,” produced by Robert Hoe of Poughkeepsie, NY. Mr. Hoe logically asked the best bands in the country to record this series – the military service bands in the DC area. Several members of the National Concert Band of America knew Robert Hoe while active duty members of said military service bands. When further recordings were necessary, Mr. Hoe turned to the National Concert Band, which made two recordings a year for several of the series.
The Heritage of the March series, however, was not for sale. It was distributed at no cost to libraries and educational institutions throughout the country. Mr. Hoe went to great lengths to locate march music, some of it quite obscure and difficult to find, from throughout the world. This series is without any doubt the definitive collection of martial music, and the National Concert Band is proud to have provided some of the series’ recordings.
Mr. DeMattia left the Washington area in 1991 for a teaching and playing position in Alabama. The second conductor chosen was John “Fritz” Velke, a former member of the United States Air Force Band, and who for years was Mr. DeMattia’s assistant conductor. It was at this time that the National Concert Band’s leaders’ titles were changed to Musical Director and Associate Conductor, with Dean “Buck” Wade, a former member of the United States Marine Band, chosen to be Mr. Velke’s assistant.
Musical Director John Velke was a well-known arranger and composer as well as a trombonist, teacher, and conductor. He brought many new works to the Band’s repertoire, some his own, with compositions and arrangements from many other composers as well. Perhaps Mr. Velke’s best known work is his “Concertina for Band,” which won the American Bandmasters Association’s prestigious Oswald Award. National Concert Band audiences were extremely fond of and receptive to his concert programming.
At the conclusion of the 1997 summer concert series, Mr. Velke stepped down as Musical Director to allow himself more time to compose and arrange, and to further develop his music publishing business. However, he remained with the organization as a playing member of its trombone section. The then current Associate Conductor, Dean Wade, was chosen as the Band’s third Musical Director. Don Stratton, a former trombone soloist and Leading Chief of the United States Navy Band, was selected as the new Associate Conductor. During his tenure, Mr. Wade made a concentrated effort to increase the Band’s instrumentation to that of a modern concert band, only slightly different from today’s present instrumentation:
2 Oboes + 1 English Horn
1 Eb Clarinet
14 Bb Clarinets
2 Alto Clarinets
2 Bass Clarinets
1 Contrabass Clarinet
2 Bassoons + 1 Contra-Bassoon
6 French Horns
4 Basses (3 Tubas + 1 String Bass)
Since the Band has some members who may not be available for a specific performance, the actual total membership actually exceeds the desired instrumentation for a performance (with the use of substitutes).
Recently the National Concert Band has had frequent changes in leadership. With the sudden tragic death of Musical Director Dean Wade in December 2005, the fourth Musical Director chosen was Don Stratton, the previous Associate Conductor. Mr. Stratton served in this capacity until June 2006 when he retired to Pennsylvania. Marshall Hawkins was assigned Interim Conductor while the positions of Musical Director and Associate Conductor were addressed. Mr. Hawkins served as Interim Conductor for approximately two years.
The fifth and current Musical Director of the National Concert Band, appointed in 2008, is Melvin Kessler, Lieutenant Commander, USN (Ret.). A career Navy musician of both enlisted and officer rank, his position upon retirement was Director of the United States Naval Academy Band in Annapolis, Maryland. The current Associate Conductor, appointed in June 2009, is Master Chief Musician, USN (Ret.) William R. Terry. His position upon retirement was clarinetist and Senior Enlisted Conductor of the United States Navy Band’s concert and ceremonial units.
Today the National Concert Band of America is proud to have members who have served for many years. We continue to seek Washington-area military bandsmen and women, as well as other highly qualified musicians who want to continue to perform with one of the highest quality musical organizations in the country. With its level of seniority and professional musical experience, the National Concert Band possesses a combined musical experience base of easily over 3,500 person-years!